Unmasking Tribal Traditions in Papua New Guinea

Unique tribal traditions and an array of show-stopping festivals await those willing to face the challenges of traveling in Papua New Guinea.

A Huli man and his wig.

As the morning mist burns off the jungle canopy, I hear the bamboo flutes: a haunting sound believed to be the voices of ancestral spirits in this far-flung region of Papua New Guinea. Then a looping line of dancers appears. Waving palm fronds and crowned with sky-scraping headdresses made from black cassowary feathers, they move as though in a trance, mimicking the high-stepping gait of crocodiles.

Together with my husband and our two young sons, I’m waiting for eight local men to take their first steps outside after being confined in a thatch-roofed haus tambaran (spirit house) for the past six weeks. We’ve traveled by canoe far up the Sepik River—at more than 1,100 kilometers the longest in Papua New Guinea—to witness this age-old initiation ceremony in Kanganaman village. It’s one of many high points on a three-month journey during which we glimpse the nation’s sheer linguistic and cultural diversity. What interests me most is the way nature is interwoven into the dress and spiritual beliefs of the various tribes we visit.

A mock cassowary in Kanganaman.

I learn that the crocodile is worshipped by the Sepik people as an ancestral water spirit. They believe all boys are born with their mother’s “unclean” blood, and most choose to mark their passage into adulthood with a ritual scarification process that takes place at the spirit house, where their backs and chests are painfully cut using slivers of bamboo or razor blades to resemble scales. It is said that young men who do this are consumed by a supernatural crocodile and then reborn as brave warriors. “When the crocodile ‘eats’ the men, mothers listen outside to see if their sons survive,” our guide George Sui explains. The men are then caked in clay to ward off flies, but no modern medicine is permitted while they recover. Nor is anyone, except other initiates, allowed into the building’s upper level, symbolic of a crocodile’s nest.

As the warriors emerge from their isolation, female family members dance around them, wailing and throwing themselves to the ground. Gleaming with plant oils, the men’s ridged markings, which cover their arms, backs, and upper legs, really do look reptilian. “Don’t go too near them as they come out,” George advised us earlier. “They’ll have the power of a crocodile.”

The main spirit house in Kanganaman village.


Since this rite of passage has been combined with the fifth annual Sepik River Festival, the surrounding expanse of grass quickly fills with different sing-sing dance groups. The performers wear headdresses radiating plumes of parrot feathers, skirts made from leaves, which fan out behind them like big bustles, or theatrical costumes inspired by animals and birds. Many of the country’s sing-sings—tribal gatherings in which locals sing and dance in full costume, re-enacting stories that have been passed down through the generations—are now only kept alive in festivals put on to encourage tourism. Throughout the trip, I constantly question my role as a visitor: is my presence helping to maintain such traditions, or is it turning a living culture into a commodity?

Sago-fruit necklaces.

Outsiders have long been drawn to Papua New Guinea in pursuit of its remote tribes and natural riches. European missionaries began arriving in the 1800s, followed by gold prospectors and oil companies under the auspices of the colonial Australian government (Papua New Guinea was a dependent territory from 1906 until its independence in 1975). Yet the country remains raw, unexpected, and steeped in ancient tradition. Christianity may now be the dominant religion, but sorcery is never far away; and despite the formal cash economy, shell money is still used to buy land or brides.

Cowrie shells decorate a traditional bilum string bag.

From the capital, Port Moresby, we flew into the frontier-like town of Wewak on the north coast. Then it was a five-hour bone-jarring drive to the riverside town of Pagwi. From there, a boatman named David took us on a motorized dugout canoe through the Sepik’s labyrinth of lakes and veiny tributaries, passing brilliant white bursts of egrets taking flight over swaths of pitpit (wild sugar cane). The next 12 nights were spent sleeping on mattresses in different village homestays along the placid, unpolluted waterway.

We’d come to the Sepik in August for the many celebrations held at this time of year, most famously the Ambunti Crocodile Festival, in which men wearing shell breastplates and penis gourds edged with boar tusks taunt each other with spears and shrill war cries. The sound of drums then led us across the muddy grass to a group of women, each dancing in grass skirts with a live young crocodile slung nonchalantly over their shoulders like handbags. Suddenly, a man wearing a giant two-tiered mask and a billowing dress of leaves ran playfully at me, alluding to the spirits that many Papua New Guineans believe to inhabit rivers, mountains, and trees.

Dugout canoes on the Sepik River.

After meeting the scarified men of Kanganaman, we stumble by chance upon another initiation ceremony farther upstream in the Kwoma village of Mariwai. The rite is traditionally held during the yam harvest, but to attract tourists, it’s happening now instead. This is not without its repercussions. “Pigs will need to be slaughtered to cool the spirits down,” the chief says, his lips stained red from chewing betel nut.

We also meet Shiva Lynn Burgos, an American conceptual artist who has been collaborating with Mariwai’s painters and weavers since 2013. Her latest project saw her carving monumental wooden totems and painting bark ceiling panels alongside Kwoma artists for the construction of a new spirit house. The result strikes me as a Sistine Chapel in bright tropical colors—a mixture of African carvings, Picasso, Aboriginal Australian motifs, and the figures of Indian artist Sonabai Rajawar. I admire the dreamlike artwork as a group of chanting, dancing men charge in with bamboo torches, blowing conch shells and thumping water drums.

A sing-sing dancer at the Ambunti Crocodile Festival.

Traveling in Papua New Guinea requires a great deal of patience and commitment. From the Sepik region, we backtrack to Wewak and Port Moresby, spending a night at each stop, before flying over impenetrable forest to reach Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea’s highlands. Over the next two days our family is enthralled by the tribal dances at the annual Mount Hagen Show. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the rainbow-bright birds of paradise we glimpse elsewhere performing in tree canopies. The Silimuli ladies resemble pirates with their giant black berets made of moss and face paint around their eyes, and I’m mesmerised by the thousands of shiny emerald-green beetles adorning the colossal headdresses worn by members of the Kalam tribe.

Silimuli women performing at the Mount Hagen Show.

Our next stop is Tari, the main gateway to Hela Province, to visit a “wig school.” These are places where young, unmarried men of the Huli tribe live away from their families for at least 18 months to grow their hair, which is eventually cut to create impressive mushroom-shaped wigs festooned with flowers. By night, we sit around a fire in one of the men’s houses. The Huli talk of nearby natural gas fields operated by Exxon Mobil. Local people resent it because they’ve received no compensation, despite the global oil-and-gas giant drilling on ancestral lands. And stories are commonplace of widespread corruption in the government, whose officials seemingly spend more time taking bribes from illegal loggers from Malaysia than looking after the predominantly rural population. “The ministers come and say we’ll have metal houses and electricity. We all clap but then get nothing,” Thomas, one resident, says. The Huli want roads, schools, and better opportunities; there are no jobs here other than performing for tourists.

Garden blooms in the highland district of Karimui.

Still, I’m inspired by the close relationship with nature I see at Yuro village in the highland district of Karimui, where homes are built from pitpit and kunai grasses, families look after pet cuscus and cockatoos plucked from the jungle, and local children, who have no toys, catch butterflies instead and fly them on strings of cotton. Everyone tends to gardens scored out of the rain forest bursting with vegetables and tropical flowers. There are cash crops too: cacao, coffee, and twisting vines of vanilla, but no roads on which to bring them to markets. “Here, life is free,” John Inuai, our host, says. “All our food is planted here or caught from the wild.”

A feathered headdress adorns this sing-sing dancer at the Ambunti Crocodile Festival.

On our last day in Yuro, we climb up near-vertical mountain paths to reach a wild vantage point, where we watch hundreds of cockatoos swoop over the treetops below. Farther off in the distance, waterfalls topple over cliffs and powerful rivers cut their way through gorges. From our aerie, we see John head into the deep jungle with friends to hunt. The men may be gone for several days in search of cassowaries and wild boar, yet they have nothing but bows and arrows and their dogs. I look down at all our paraphernalia—sunglasses, walking boots, sun creams—and marvel at our host and his hunting mates as they disappear into the vibrant green foliage, treading nimbly on their bare feet. 

Getting There

Air Niugini flies nonstop from Hong Kong and Singapore to Port Moresby, where domestic services provide onward connections to Wewak and Mount Hagen.

Where to Stay

One of six lodges operated by Trans-Niugini Tours, an outfit that also owns a nine-cabin cruiser on the Sepik River, Rondon Ridge is a modern, 12-room property about a half-hour’s drive from Mount Hagen town. All travel and lodgings described in this story can be arranged through PNG Highlands Adventures, run from the town of Goroka in the country’s eastern highlands, and Wewak-based PNG Frontier Adventures.

This article originally appeared in the December 2019/January 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“New Guinea Unmasked”).

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